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E-Pao! Essays - I,robot....you,robot?

I,robot....you,robot?

By: James Vaiphei *



Why are we so interested in robots?
To be honest, when you come to think about it, It's a bit odd that we are. Robots of the kind shown in the newly-released film I,Robot don't exist in the real world,and aren't likely to for quite some time. Yet robots have been a staple of science fiction, and things very like robots have haunted people's imaginations since long before science fiction.

The thirteenth-century magician Albertus Magnus was a reputed to have built a brass head that talked. The Jewish legend of the golem-a clay man. said to have been built by the Rabbi of Prague is just as medieval. Tom standage's wonderful book The Mechanical Turk tells the story of the many 'automata' built in the eighteenth century, one of which-the chess-playing mechanical man of the title-entertained and baffled the crowned heads of Europe. It was a clever fake, but the lessons learned in building such ingenious contraption become an engine of the Industrial Revolution.

Science fiction actually can't tell us very much about robots in the real world. Reading Isaac Asimov won't help you design a production line, but from its themes we can work out what our interest in robots tells us about ourselves.

Our ancestors were predators who had to avoid becoming prey. This makes us pattern-recognising animals,and easily-startled animals. The patterns we are best equipped to recognise are those distinctive of other animals, and especially other humans.

We see faces in fires, in clouds, in leaves. We're language-using animals, social and sociable, and our faces and their expressions literally mean a lot to us. We're also tool making animals,with an opposable thumb and flexible hand unique in the animal kingdom.

So the idea of a tool, a machine, that mimics our most distinctive features-a machine with a face, a voice, a mind, a hand is disturbing and uncanny. I recently visited an exhibition with many toy robots, and it was interesting to see how much design effort had gone into making them less frightening, indeed cute, for young children, and how easy it was to make those for older children look scary. Robots can give us the creeps.

Where did they come from?
The robot in sci-fi has a double ancestry.One forebear is the monster in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The other is the real practice of building automata. The Frankenstein motif of creation that destroys its creators appeared in Karel Capek's play R.U.R ( for 'Rossum's Universal Robots', which is where the word 'robot' comes from) and rampaged through early SF.

A more sympathetic portrayal came with the half-forgotten writer Eano Binder's I,Robot and was carried forward in Asimov's stories under the same title. Asimov, you might say, wrote the book on robots, but other stories also stand out.

Anthony Boucher's brilliant theological fable The Quest For St Aquin asked whether a robot could be religious. Brain Aldiss's hilarious and elegiac But Who Can Replace a Man? asked whether robots would miss us if we went. From the 1950s to the 1970s,robots carried a heavy weight of themes-humanity,identity,labour,slavery-on uncomplaining metal shoulders.

The emergence of Al
And then they went away. They become,as sci-fi writer Paul MacAuley once said,dead tech,an outworn idea that serious sci-fi writers couldn't write about with a straight face. They died and went to heaven, which for robots is the silver screen.In satirical series like Red Dwarf and sci-fi movies like Star Wars, they can entertain a whole new audience from whom the robot is still new.

What's replaced the robot as a serious topic is Artificial Intelligence. The research into cognitive science that underlies Al gives us a deeper answer to the question I started with. It tells us that minds are built out of mindless little bits.

Synapses in our brains and logic gates in computers are doing the same kind of job. Computer don't have minds yet, but some day they may. If we choose to give them machines to move around in, we'll have robots.

Until then, one place where you can see a body controlled by machine that thinks for itself is in the mirror we are interested in robots because we are robots.




* James Vaiphei, Student and Member of Institute for the Management of Information System (IMIS) writes regularly for e-pao.net.
He can be contacted at marc_vaiphei@yahoo.co.uk

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